Students Talking Standards

The Surprisingly Quick Impact of Implementing Standards-Referenced Grading in
My High School English Classroom

I wish I could’ve recorded every conversation with my students in the first five months. I wish I’d kept all their emails. I wish I could put into few words the one-on-one conversations I’ve had with them and the conversations I’ve heard them have among themselves.

But I haven’t. And I can’t.

I’m pretty sure, though, that if I hired 15 of the students who’ve best embraced standards-referenced grading (SRG) in my Pre-AP English 10 classroom to serve as team members on my imaginarily lucrative side business of selling it to all the students, parents, or professionals who stubbornly resist it, there’d be little hope for the future of traditional grading practices.

The transition to SRG is not all sunshine and roses, so don’t assume that’s all I’ve experienced or that’s all the perspective I have to offer.

But I am here to share with you my experiences — the experiences of a fifth-year teacher who loves challenging the norms of tradition, provoking students to think, researching best practices, stimulating reflection, and cultivating self-efficacy. And I think SRG is successfully making these things happen for me more than ever.

In education, we spend the most time collectively analyzing the big measurements: quarterly benchmarks; yearly summatives; cross-grade-level comparisons; Tier 1, 2, and 3 movements.

For most teachers, though, the day-to-day measurements mean so much more. They’re what determines the next day’s shifts. They’re what hints at long-term results. They’re what animates a teacher’s ethical consciousness. They’re what gives teachers something to hang their hat on.

Daily measurements convince me to stay up a little later to strategize, get up a little earlier to grade, think a little harder to plan, collaborate a little more purposefully, feedback a little clearer, praise a little more, feel a little prouder, smile a little bigger.

Thinking about how quickly my students have responded to SRG and begun talking standards gets me so pumped up.

Here’s how that’s looked:

Approximately a month before Day One: My Oxford High School colleague and Across the Hall podcast co-host, Michelle Shelton, says she’s piloting standards-referenced grading with her Pre-AP English 9 classes and would like me to opt in, too, so we could strengthen each other’s practices and combine forces in some of the ground work: crafting proficiency scales, designing digital data binders, drafting parent communication letters, and projecting likely hurdles.

Weeks before Day One: A teacher from a SRG Facebook group shares with Michelle access to a Google Sheet file she uses as a data binder for each of her students. We collaboratively modify the file to our needs and officially call it a digital data binder. Michelle attends a summer workshop at which she develops proficiency scales worthy of immediate use.

Days before Day One: The parent communication letter is completed, largely benefited by ideas from our friend Joy Kirr, author of Shift This!

Day One: I’m anxious that the first day will not go well. I expect students to immediately buck at the idea of SRG — to request schedule changes the moment I preview the course SRG teaching and grading procedures. I provide them letters that include an introduction to SRG, a grade conversion chart I’ll use to convert SRG scores to traditional grades at the end of the semester, and example proficiency scales. Students sit through the spiel, claiming they’ve got it and, upon my inquiry, having no immediate questions.

Week One: That silence on Day One? You’d think that might not have been a good sign for how well students would handle this seemingly monumental shift. It takes direct questioning to my students over the next few days to see what students thought.

They started talking then.

“My mom read the letter. But she said she has to read the letter over again to see what she thinks.”

“My mom’s okay with it. She teaches at the elementary school, and they’ve been doing this for a while now.”

“My parents don’t know what to think yet. They want to know what the grades are actually going to look like.”

“My parents were confused about the conversion chart. Could you describe that better to us so we can tell them?”

“How can I get a four?”

Months One and Two: Month One blows by. Lessons begin like usual: a hook, a preview of a learning target students also add to their digital target trackers, a look at the proficiency scale(s) for the standard(s) being taught and assessed, and an explanation of how the target relates to the performance task. As early assessments are submitted, I begin to notice that students are not scoring to anyone’s expectation, students or mine. Scores of one or two (we use a four-point scale promoted by Marzano Research) suggest a two-fold problem: (1) I’m not preparing them well enough to score above a two, and (2) they aren’t recognizing how to meet the expectations of the different levels of the proficiency scales. They begin communicating with me a little more, both in class and by email:

“What am I doing wrong?”

“I thought I did well, but my score wasn’t what I expected.”

“What day is your intervention?” (Intervention is a one-period class that meets once per week as a time for students to receive extra help.)

“Can I redo this assignment? I didn’t do as well as I know I could.”

“So I get a higher score for embedding text evidence?”

“What do you mean by ‘contextualize’ my evidence?”

“Could you take a look at my assignment? I revised what I did based on some of the feedback you gave me.”

I begin to occasionally display student work from the document projector to conduct live scoring. I model my thought processes: what I notice in their writing and how I apply proficiency scales to the process of analysis and scoring. After going through a couple students’ work, giving scores on multiple standards, I display another student’s, then another (By the way, I use students from other class periods when doing this, and I cover or omit the student’s name as it’s projected), but now it’s their turn to discuss aloud and score their peers’ work (which I do beforehand in order to allow them to see the equitability of the scales and practice itself).

“That’s a one. The student didn’t cite any direct evidence.”

“That’s a two. The student only gave explicit character traits.”

“No, that’s a zero. That doesn’t even address the characterization of Melba. That’s only about Grandma.”

“The writer begins every sentence the same, and there’s only one sentence of commentary each time. That’s a one.”

Months Three through Five: Those who’ve risen in achievement in the first three months have been those who’ve asked questions, sought help, read feedback, revised work, and repeated this same process over again and again. Teaching the standards has become fun for me. Despite my students having dozens of other priority standards in other classes (and hundreds total, if counting them all), their constant dependence on them for satisfactory scores and regular visits to their data binders to check feedback, review scales, and track progress has done more than just made them aware of their location and basic nature. I didn’t anticipate the whole-class and individual conversations I’m now having.

I say, “So this reflection will assess you on L 10.1,2 again. What types of things should you be concerned with?” They say:

“Not repeating the same words and phrases.”

“Using correct grammar.”

“Correct mechanics.”

“Three to one.” (That’s the ratio of commentary to evidence I require of my students in order to fully explain evidence.”)

“Variation in sentence structure.”

I say, “What standard have we all struggled with the most this year?” Almost in unison, they say:

“RL 10.4.”

 “Well, what is it about that standard?”

“We have to explain deeper meanings of words and phrases.”

“Denotative and connotative meanings.”

You’re getting the idea. When you start a class with a target, and that target is connected to a standard, and that standard is a priority standard, and that priority standard is what students know they’ll be assessed on, they pick it up. They pay attention. They seek to improve where they are, even if they’re disgusted with low scores — even if they direct their grievances toward SRG instead of their own weaknesses.

I could write a book about all the growing pains students are pushing through to succeed with SRG. It hasn’t been easy. But I prefer the prospect of describing to others how SRG systematically improves student learning over authoring anything about the alternative; my experiences with traditional grading practices lead me to see teaching and learning using them as anything but systematic. SRG’s upward trend is all because of its simplicity: a viable and guaranteed curriculum, being priority-standards driven, assigning relevant tasks, and providing quality feedback.

It’s hard for even me to believe, but my students are actually talking standards.

What about yours?

Cade Somers teaches English 10 and Pre-AP English 10 at Oxford High School where he is piloting standards-referenced grading along with some of his secondary colleagues. He also cohosts the Across the Hall podcast, available on iTunes and Google Play.

1 thought on “Students Talking Standards”

  1. Applause to Mr. Somers!!! LOVE to hear about success stories in the secondary classroom. Standards-based/referenced grading really does work at any level…it simply requires understanding and commitment from our educators.


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